Rutgers Law Project Advances Citizen Access to Big Data
Ellen Goodman, a professor at Rutgers Law School, has received a $100,000 grant to advance public access to big data – information collected and processed by government and significant private sector institutions that influence some of the most important aspects of a person's life.
Be it criminal justice or consumer credit scores, algorithms are used by companies and government to determine "everything from parole, to length of sentences, to what information is circulated, to what schools should close in a district," says Goodman, a widely cited expert on information policy law who serves as co-director and co-founder of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law.
The two-year grant from the Lois & Samuel Pratt Program for Freedom of Information begins this September. The project will include a focus on New Jersey institutions and municipal efforts to become “smart cities,” Goodman says.
"The goal of the project is to improve understanding of how big data sets and analytics lead to algorithmic predictions, which can shape the provision of government and private services and the distribution of opportunities," explains Goodman, who teaches at Rutgers Law School's Camden location. "As more data is collected on every aspect of individual lives and the physical environment, it becomes ever more crucial that citizens be able to critically assess how entities have turned the data into actionable conclusions."
Goodman will work with scholars from other institutions and across such academic disciplines as criminal justice, media studies, and computer science to advance citizen access to public data and algorithmic transparency. She will support the scholars' research efforts with sub-grants.
With governments using algorithms to make decisions on energy policy, educational policy, policing, transportation policy, employment and many other areas, Goodman says, "it is as important to know how a government has used data as it is to know how it has used money, and the two are often related."
But, she cautions, access does not ensure understanding of complex algorithmic processes. Because learning algorithms use ever-changing data sets and weight each variable differently, "journalists and citizens must be able to interrogate these processes in order to understand what the powerful institutions around them are doing."
Further complicating this effort at understanding, especially in New Jersey with its 565 different municipal governments, are differing interpretations of the laws by municipalities that govern open records and freedom of information. "It is important to understand what barriers to access are there and how to get around them," Goodman says.
Also at issue are how these autonomous governments report and measure the data they use to make decisions. Furthermore, Goodman says, there are rising demands – many justifiable – to restrict collection, use, and disclosure of the data and analytics used by government and private institutions.
The grant will lead to research and policy proposals, Goodman says, as well as the sharing of information with larger academic communities and the public.